Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan

Stories of this time period usually belong to the King Arthur tradition. Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan instead tells the story from the perspective of Cerdic of Wessex, said to be the first king of Wessex and presented by Duggan as a man of mixed Roman and Germanic heritage. The novel was well researched, but it was not the most fun book to read.

Usually authors lead the reader to be at least somewhat on the side of the protagonists, even if the main characters are rascals or even scoundrels. But the Cerdic in Conscience of the King is really a king without a conscience. He is very difficult to relate to, and I felt little or no sympathy for him. Yes, I could understand to some degree why he might have the desires he did, but Cerdic did nothing to redeem himself from his transgressions. Even those closest to him always seemed to be meeting with “misfortune.”

Duggan chose to write the narrative from a first-person perspective. That can be an effective technique, but when the narrator is such a cold-blooded, unsympathetic character, it doesn’t seem to work as well. It felt rather unpleasant to be inside Cerdic’s head. Also, the use of first-person meant that dialogue was very limited, which perhaps contributed to the somewhat plodding nature of the book.

Some of the chapters were very long; there were only seven chapters in this novel of 274 pages. For those of us who can usually only read in short spurts, it is more convenient to have somewhat shorter chapters, or at least scene breaks.

This book was written back in 1951, and perhaps readers of historical novels then had different expectations than those of today. Maybe some of the features that make this book less pleasant to read just reflect the usual practices of older novels versus those written more recently. However, many novels written even longer ago still read well today. Johnny Tremain is such an example. I was glad to have read Conscience of the King due to its different perspective on the early years of the Saxon invasion, but I would not really recommend it except to Anglo-Saxon enthusiasts.

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